Alice Lee was watching the kids warm up their tennis strokes recently when her thoughts focused on the 10-year-old girl in the pink top and dark blue pants, who obviously was enjoying the company of her fellow juniors as they took turns hitting forehands and backhands, some a little more skillfully than others.
Lee remarked on how much the girl, Dariann Adams, has progressed socially since the first time she spotted her more than two years ago at the Watkins Park Tennis Center in Upper Marlboro, MD.
“She was kind of shy and quiet,” Lee said. “She’s still quiet, but she enjoys tennis. And she’s such a coachable person.”
There are many benefits from playing tennis, besides the obvious physical exertion that is good for the heart. For some, whacking tennis balls is a way to relieve tension at the end of a stressful day. Others simply enjoy the recreation and friendly competition of the sport.
For Dariann, who competed in the American Tennis Association’s national tournament in Fort Lauderdale last July, tennis has provided the courage and confidence she needed to break through her shell and face the world.
“It helps me to not be shy,” she told me softly at the end of a recent practice when I asked what it was she loved so much about the sport.
I found a more expansive answer in a school essay she wrote last summer.
“Because of tennis and my coaches, I am now more confident and not as shy as I used to be… ,” the fifth-grader at Mount Harmony Elementary School in Calvert County wrote. “My confidence does not only happen on the tennis courts. I am now able to be confident in everything. This past year, I joined the chorus, band and drama club. I had to perform in shows and I was not scared or shy.”
Dariann’s mother, Deanne Chevannes, is amazed at how much her daughter has fallen for tennis ever since she tagged along with her mother and older brother to a Citi Open tournament match about three years ago in Washington, D.C.
“I could not believe how into this my daughter was,” said Chevannes, a freelance consultant for the philanthropic community. “She has not stopped loving that game ever since that day.”
Chevannes applauds Alice Lee and the Active Aces Super Senior Tennis Club, Inc., for providing an affordable tennis program for youngsters like Dariann.
Lee, 81, is the founder and CEO of the club that evolved from a group of 25 seniors who began taking tennis lessons together in 2000. Lee, a retired Washington, D.C. school teacher, organized the group to continue the social bond they had formed and the tennis activity they enjoyed.
The AASSTC, with more than 100 members, has come a long way since its early days. In addition to developing programs for juniors, it sponsors several annual events, including a “super seniors” tennis tournament in the summer and a black-tie “Evening of Elegance” gala in December.
The club is one of hundreds of Community Tennis Associations throughout the country registered with the United States Tennis Association. It has won several club of the year awards.
Lee said the juniors program began with club members playing with their grandchildren at Fort Lincoln Park in D.C. Park neighbors began noticing and asking if they could get their kids involved.
Lee started teaching kids to play, but quickly found the demand too much for her to handle alone, she said. She reached out to high school tennis coaches James Bennett and Clover Arthur Ellis, who volunteered to help.
The AASSTC charges $75 for 10 weeks. At Watkins Park, the juniors practice on one court on Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m. and three on Saturday from 5-7 p.m. The club also sponsors a juniors program at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Southeast D.C.
“Tennis is an expensive sport, so I wanted to reach out to kids whose parents couldn’t pay $200, $300,” Lee said. “We think we offer a good program. And when the kids learn all they can learn here… I want them to go on.”
Dariann is at that point, her mother said.
Chevannes said Dariann now takes private lessons once a week, but the cost for one hour is as much as what she pays for 10 weeks with the Active Aces.
“She’s at a level now where I need to take her game up a bit,” she said.
But Dariann loves the Active Aces program so much she can’t break away.
In addition to practicing twice a week, she plays in the Active Aces-sponsored junior tennis league on Sundays at Watkins Park.
“This is like a little family for her,” Chevannes told me. “She always wants to come and be with them. If she could do more, she would. But we live all the way in Calvert County, so coming here is a chore.”
She said the ATA tournament was an enlightening experience for Dariann, who played singles and doubles in the 10-and-under division. She lost both matches, each lasting more than two hours.
“She said to me, ‘Mommy, this was great. Now I know what I need to do to win,’” Chevannes recalled. “I’m very proud of her and her willingness to stick with the game.”